How to Write About Anything: 5 Steps for Researching a New Topic

by | Sep 11, 2015 | Freelancing | 32 comments

You’ve just landed a job as a content writer . . . for an industry you have absolutely zero background in.

You’re a beginner, and this is a great job, your best so far: $100 for 800 words. You’ve gotta make it. There is no way you’re about to mess this up.

What now?

You’re going to write those articles, and you’re going to write them well. No one, especially your new client, will ever guess you’re new to the field.

That’s the right attitude, and you’re halfway there. Now the question is how to do it.

Ready? Here are five steps to effectively research your subject, so you’ll be able to write authoritative, accurate content.

1. Define and refine your topic

Let’s say you’re writing for a marketing manager. You’re new to freelancing, and have no idea what marketing even is. All you know is that when you need vegetables, you can go to the supermarket or the farmer’s market.

Your first step is to define what kind of marketing your client wants you to write about. Does he want to market a service or a product? Online or offline? Is what you’re writing going to be printed, made into a wall poster, or published on a website?

Once you’ve figured out what you are marketing, along with where, how, and to whom, you can move on. Remember, you’re not out to become an expert. If you gobble up too much at once, it’ll hurt your writing. All you need is a basic understanding of the subject at hand.

Take a minute to write down what your specific topic is, just as if you were writing an academic thesis statement.

2. Determine what resources you need

Once upon a time, when we wanted to look something up, we went to the library and opened an encyclopedia. Those were the days.

Today, it’s not so simple. If you’re looking to write for a travel agency, you’re going to read popular websites, search for cheap deals, and see what interests travelers right now.

On the other hand, if you’re writing about whether breastfeeding has health benefits, you’re going to want to read government sites, medical reports, and organized, reliable research.

You also need to think about whether written information is enough. Maybe you’re going to need to dig up a video or sound recording, conduct an interview or observe someone.

3. Start your research

If you’ve decided that your primary information source is the Internet, start Googling. If you’re looking for people who have been to the Bahamas, look on Facebook. If you need to find out whether it’s worth it to be a dentist, make a list of dentists in your area and ask for interviews.

How long you spend on this step depends on a few things. First, consider how complicated the subject is, and how much material you will need to cover. Also take into consideration how fast you read, how quickly you learn new concepts, and whether you need to take someone else’s schedule into consideration.

Tackle at least one of your chosen sources per day if you have the time to plot out your research.

4. Get your sources to work for you

It doesn’t take research to learn how to research, but it does take preparation.

If you’re observing someone, you’ll need to think about who and what you’re observing. Write down your goals. Think about recording the observation session so you can review it later, and be proactive beforehand to obtain permission to record.

If you’re conducting interviews, make a list of questions to ask and topics that you want to cover. You won’t always be able to ask all the questions (sometimes the conversation will go off on a tangent or you’ll run out of time), but if you have a list of topics, you’ll remember the most important items.

For those Googling, I recommend reading through the first five-to-10 pages of results, the last five-to-10 pages of results, and a few random pages in the middle. Otherwise, you’re liable to miss important information.

Whenever possible, take a few moments to research the viewpoint opposite to your own. Knowing both sides of the issue will give you a better understanding overall — and it will show in your writing.

5. Write down what you’ve learned

Make a list of the most important things you’ve learned. This can be done on paper, in a Word document, or even just by copy-and-pasting the most important selections into an email to yourself. Make sure that you keep track of your sources, so that you don’t get stuck later on.

Remember your original document with your topic and list of sources? Open it. See if you’ve done what you wanted to do. You may want to write what you’ve learned in this same document, to keep it all together.

Do you have tips on how to quickly learn about a new field? Share them in the comments!